News, Trump Administration

Conservative group urges Betsy DeVos to dismantle federal education department

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

We’re still awaiting details on new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ plans for the nation’s public schools, but a report from The Washington Post this week is sure to fire up public education advocates already anxious about the new secretary.

According to the Post‘s Emma Brown, a conservative policy organization with deep ties to DeVos and President Trump’s administration is pushing the pair for some big changes in how the nation administers public schools.

From the Post:

A policy manifesto from an influential conservative group with ties to the Trump administration, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urges the dismantling of the Education Department and bringing God into American classrooms.

The five-page document produced by the Council for National Policy calls for a “restoration of education in America” that would minimize the federal role, promote religious schools and home schooling and enshrine “historic Judeo-Christian principles” as a basis for instruction.

For those unfamiliar with the Council for National Policy, it’s a powerful group of conservatives that, since its founding in 1981, has generally sought to advance Christian right principles.

DeVos’ father-in-law, wealthy GOP benefactor Richard DeVos, is a former president of the group and top Trump aides Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway have both been involved with the council, according to the Post. The report adds that DeVos and her husband have also donated to the organization.

Here’s a Policy Watch examination of what DeVos’ confirmation means for North Carolina public schools.  Read more

Environment, Trump Administration

Over objections from EPA employees, environmental advocates, scientists, U.S. Senate confirms Scott Pruitt as agency chief

Meet the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who opposes the EPA.

No amount of concern that Scott Pruitt is too friendly with the fossil fuel industry, that he has improperly withheld 3,000 emails about his business dealings with coal, oil and natural gas companies; that he has said climate change is a hoax; that hundreds of rank-and-file EPA employees oppose him; that he is blithely unaware of pollution’s harm to the public health; and that he holds in contempt the very agency he was nominated to lead: none of this swayed the majority of the U.S. Senate in approving him to lead the EPA.

The Senate confirmed Pruitt, currently the Oklahoma Attorney General, as the new EPA administrator today at 1 p.m. Both North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis voted for Pruitt.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, voted against his nomination. However, her nay vote was canceled out by two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. They are interested in reviving their states’ coal industries, which is unlikely, given the market forces favoring natural gas and renewables.

Pruitt was grilled last month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Republicans ultimately voted to send his nomination to the full Senate. Democrats boycotted the vote.

Yesterday, a state judge in Oklahoma ordered Pruitt to release thousands of emails related to his dealings with fossil fuel companies. Those emails are public under open records law, but Pruitt had withheld them for two years.

Now that Pruitt has been confirmed, it will be interesting to see what changes — in personnel, in rulemaking and in public information — he will enact. Since President Trump took office, there has been a hiring freeze at the agency, as well as a halt on public information. The main EPA website hasn’t changed — except for a scrubbing of the climate change section — and no social media posts or press releases have been issued.

Next, the Senate can turn its attention to approving a deputy EPA administrator. Former NCDEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart is one of two finalists for that job.

 

Commentary, Trump Administration

Message to Trump administration: Protect our care; don’t weaken the Marketplace

You don’t have to be low-income or uninsured to grasp how challenging and complex the modern world of health care and health insurance has become. Even in my role as a fully insured professional who works in the field every day as an advocate, I wrestle with the challenges the system presents — especially when I grapple with the health concerns of my teenage children and retired parents. The Affordable Care Act has certainly improved things, but we clearly have a long way to go.

In such an environment — one that challenges even informed and comparatively well-off people — it’s remarkable and outrageous that the Trump administration released a proposed health care rule yesterday that would make it harder to for people to remain covered. This proposal — which comes just one day after many North Carolinians celebrated the value of Affordable Care Act at various #HaveAHeart events throughout the state — shows that opponents of the ACA in Congress and the Trump administration value the short-term bottom lines of insurance companies over citizens that elected them into office.

The proposed rule would increase premiums and out-of-pocket costs for consumers while reducing financial help (i.e. tax credits) and plan offerings. It would also shrink the open enrollment period from three months to less than two — a change favored by some insurance companies which complain that people sometimes enroll toward the end of open enrollment period to pay for upcoming costly services only to drop coverage soon after. Instead of viewing the late sign-up as an economic issue for consumers, it seems insurers and the Trump administration believe there are people who actually plan in advance to develop a health condition, suffer a trauma or even receive news of a serious diagnosis after a preventive screening only to drop it and not continue future care.

Another provision on the table provides that regardless of health status, insurers can decide to refuse coverage to individuals or employers who have unpaid premiums. Such a policy would be sure to produce devastating effects in the form of delayed care and worse health outcomes (even death) for families dealing with significant economic and medical needs. It would also increase long-run costs as earlier, lower-cost interventions give way to later, higher-cost treatments. Sadly, the Trump administration seems determined to address the concerns of the insurance industry by shifting all of the burden onto the backs of millions of average Americans.

It shouldn’t (and doesn’t have) to be this way. Instead of higher costs and greater uncertainty, Americans should instead be assured they can have health coverage to access the care they need, when they need it, free from discrimination. Insurers should have a place in a stable, strong Market free from provisions that encourage collapse. What’s more, insurance companies should do what they usually do best — look at the long term — and join with consumers to push for such a win-win outcome.

Right now, individuals, providers, public officials and other leaders across the country are pushing back against the Trump proposals. Let’s hope insurance companies — many of which are among the leading corporate citizens in North Carolina and elsewhere — begin to look beyond their own narrow, short-term interests and join in this effort.

News, Trump Administration

Dallas Woodhouse, HB2 and the GOP’s trans problem

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.

Over the weekend Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, apologized for re-tweeting an article from a right wing website that calls transgender people mentally ill and/or perverts.

Woodhouse claimed he did not read the article – titled “Justice Department Kills Obama’s Pervs-In-The-Girls-Bathroom Rule” – closely enough before sharing it.

The reaction to the apology was illuminating.

Some were incredulous, asking how Woodhouse could have misread a piece whose first paragraph proclaimed “the Obama administration decreed that the mentally ill and sexual perverts who claim to be mentally ill had to be allowed to use the restrooms and school locker rooms of their preference without regards to the concerns of anyone else.”

Others chided Woodhouse for apologizing at all, saying he should ignore criticism because the article was right.

The incident highlights the rocky terrain on transgender issues on which the Republican party – and particularly the N.C. GOP – finds itself. It also provides further insight into December’s failed attempt to repeal HB2 and the continued struggle to resolve the conflict over the controversial law as it continues to threaten the state’s reputation and economy.

Woodhouse’s retweet – and the article’s sentiment – actually reflect the official position of the state in the federal lawsuit over HB2: There are no transgender people – just delusional, mentally ill people who shouldn’t be encouraged.

Gov. Pat McCrory, lawyers for the state and a number of GOP state lawmakers have depended on “expert” opinions from right wing groups well out of the scientific mainstream in defining their position on transgender issues.

Earlier this month a transgender woman learned that the hard way when she wrote members of the N.C. General Assembly about HB2 and got a shocking reply from N.C. Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union).

“I cannot speak professionally but can only repeat what professionals say about what you are going through,” Brody wrote. “I believe it is called Gender Dysphoria, I hope I got the spelling right, and am saddened by the fact that North Carolina doesn’t provide the help you need to readjust from the mental disorder you suffer with. It appears that allowing you to use a bathroom, locker room or shower of your choice only reinforces the disorder not helps to correct it. As compassionate legislator I seek to help people who are suffering. If you are willing I can investigate promoting legislation to help those who suffer from this disorder and with your help can work to alleviate the pain and suffering caused by this disorder. I’m willing to help if you are willing to be helped and help others.”

Brody’s misunderstanding of the realities of transgender peoples’ experience – and what gender dysphoria actually is – seem to be widespread among GOP legislators in Raleigh.

In fact, gender dysphoria is the distress that can result from living as one gender but not identifying that way – and expert doctors now help people transition to alleviate the problem.

N.C. Policy Watch spoke about this with Dr. Deanna Adkins of Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care at Duke University Hospital last year.

“The best medical literature shows that treating dysphoria and helping them to transition has a 70-80 percent efficacy,” Adkins said. “Why would we ignore that? Especially when forty percent of them attempt suicide and many more, I’m sure, succeed.”

Adkins, an actual practicing physician who has been working with transgender people for the last five years, provided expert testimony against HB2 in the federal lawsuit.

But the echo chamber of political rhetoric on the issue – and the absence and distortion of good information – has made discussion of an HB2 repeal difficult. The problem is even more complicated now as the President Donald Trump’s administration abandons defense of President Barack Obama’s guidelines on transgender students in schools.

LGBT advocates responded to Woodhouse’s apology Monday, underscoring its relationship to HB2 repeal.

“Mr. Woodhouse’s retweet of this article sends a message to transgender kids that their government views them as criminals and deviants who are not deserving of the same protections that others take for granted,” said Equality NC Director of Transgender Policy Ames Simmons in a statement Monday.

“How could any trans or gender-questioning child hear that message and believe that they are going to be okay or that they have a viable future in our state?” Simmons said. “We say to those youth, we see you; we value you, and we are going to fight for you.”

“Dallas speaks for the North Carolina GOP, and the article he touted creates a direct risk of discrimination and violence for transgender North Carolinians,” said Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro, a former N.C. House member.

”Our leaders should not be tearing down those they are meant to lead – especially our young people,” Sgro said. “This incident underscores how detrimental HB2 has been to our state, and why it is crucial that we immediately enact statewide protections against hate and discrimination. Will Tim Moore and Phil Berger denounce this action, and commit to the full repeal of HB2?”

 

Environment, Trump Administration

Environmental news to watch for this week: Endangered Species Act, Atlantic Coast Pipeline

An elder from the Lumbee Tribe in Pembroke spoke out against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at a demonstration last November. The ACP would enter North Carolina in Northampton County and pass through eight counties, ending in Robeson County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Federal energy officials have scheduled three “drop-in sessions” this week for public input on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Atlantic Coast Pipeline, built by Dominion Energy. These sessions won’t be conducted like many traditional public meetings — citizens petitioning their government openly and in front of a crowd. Instead, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will meet one-on-one with citizens.

That’s problematic because the public and the media can’t hear and learn from what others  are saying, nor can they witness, as a group, the responses from FERC on a controversial (and legally required) document regarding the pipeline’s environmental and social justice impacts.

The DEIS has concluded there the pipeline would not cause any significant adverse environmental justice impacts along its 150-mile path through eastern North Carolina. Many Native American and African-American residents disagree over concerns about property values, groundwater and surface water.

In response, Clean Water for North Carolina is hosting People’s Hearings to coincide with each official session.

  • Tonight in Fayetteville: FERC session, 5–9 p.m.., Doubletree Hotel, 1965 Cedar Creek Road
    People’s hearing, Rodeway Inn, 1957 Cedar Creek Road, 6 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Wilson: FERC, 5–9 p.m., Forest Hills Middle School, 1210 Forest Hills Road NW
    People’s hearing: 5 p.m., in the cafeteria of Forest Hills Middle School
  • Wednesday, Feb. 15, in Roanoke Rapids: FERC, 5–9 p.m., Hilton Garden Inn, 111 Carolina Crossroads Parkway
    People’s hearing, 5:30 p.m., Mystique Events Center, 1652 NC Hwy. 125

NCPW will publish a story about the pipeline and its potential impacts on Thursday morning.

 

 

Protect me, I’m endangered: The Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel. The Trump Administration is considering rolling back the Endangered Species Act; a U.S. Senate committee will discuss the ESA’s “modernization” at a hearing this week. The panel includes Gordon Myers, executive director of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.                        (Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

And on a federal level, a Senate committee will discuss “Oversight: Modernization of the Endangered Species Act” on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. Gordon Myers, executive director of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, will be on the panel, along with officials from Defenders of Wildlife, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Enacted in 1973, the ESA could be unraveled under the Trump Administration, which views the regulations as an economic and development impediment. Already, the protection of one recently listed endangered species, the Rusty-Patched bumblebee, has been postponed under Trump. More than 60 endangered or threatened species have been found in North Carolina, including the Rusty-Patched bumblebee, Kemp’s Ridley turtle, Atlantic sturgeon, the Piping plover, the Littlewing Pearlymussel, Michaux’s sumac and the Carolina Northern flying squirrel.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is hosting the hearing; C-SPAN doesn’t list the program on its schedule, but Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has a YouTube Channel dedicated to the committee.